That is how close the Tampa Bay Rays were from a berth in the American League Championship Series last season. They were one win away from moving past the Houston Astros and going on to face the New York Yankees for a chance to go to the World Series. The 2019 Tampa Bay Rays were once again driven by an impressive mix of young, blossoming prospects and valuable veterans on their way to a 96-66 record.
The Rays pitching rotation was led by the three-headed monster of Charlie Morton, Blake Snell, and Tyler Glasnow, and that same trio figures to do exactly the same if and when there is a 2020 season. They also possess a diverse bullpen made up of high-velocity strikeout pitchers as well as a few softer-throwing pitchers who specialize in producing ground balls.
Their offense received a major boost from newcomers Tommy Pham (the 2019 campaign was his first full season with the Rays), Avisail Garcia, and Travis d’Arnaud. They also caught their first glimpse at a very bright future in the emergence of Austin Meadows, who led the team with 33 home runs. Their offense boasted a strong combination of power, speed, and high-contact hitters that made life miserable for many opposing pitchers.
The Rays lineup will look much different going forward than it did in 2019 due to the mass exodus that their roster experienced in free agency this past winter. All three of the aforementioned newcomers (Garcia, Pham, d’Arnaud) found new teams, but they were not the only offensive players who left. The Rays also lost Matt Duffy, Jesus Aguilar, Guillermo Heredia, and Eric Sogard to free agency, leaving several spots up for grabs.
One player who will look to seize that opportunity is 24-year-old Nate Lowe. A first baseman by trade, Lowe played in just 50 games in the 2019 campaign, finishing with a .263/.325/.454 slash line to go along with seven home runs and eight doubles. Lowe has long been one of the Rays’ top prospects as he has shredded his way through their minor-league system.
Lowe was drafted in the 13th round of the 2016 Major League Baseball draft and quickly made an impression in the low levels of the Rays farm system. He split time between High-A, Double-A, and Triple A in 2018 and put up monster numbers that year; he finished with a combined .330 batting average and 27 home runs. Lowe’s rapid ascension through the minor leagues is what eventually led to him being called up to the big-league club late last season.
However, Lowe struggled to find consistent playing time on a crowded Rays roster that was going on a playoff run. Unfortunately, he will likely have that same struggle going forward, especially if the 2020 season ends up being only 50-80 games long.
Ji-Man Choi still mans first base, and the Rays acquired Jose Martinez to fill the designated hitter spot in the lineup. They added Hunter Renfroe in a trade with the San Diego Padres which sent Tommy Pham out of Tampa Bay, and they also signed international free agent Yoshimoto Tsutsugo, who figures to see time both in the outfield and at the corner infield positions.
The departures of Pham, Garcia, Duffy, and Aguilar seemed to be the opening that Lowe needed, but it was quickly erased by the acquisitions of Renfroe, Martinez, and Tsutsugo. Once again, Lowe finds himself on the outside looking in despite his impressive rise to the major-league level.
One thing to keep in mind is that the Rays operate much differently from other teams in the league. Specifically, the Rays love to platoon players and construct their lineup based purely on the best match-up. Therefore, a small opening exists for Lowe to squeeze himself into the lineup, and that opening could come against right-handed pitchers.
It is conceivable that against right-handed pitchers the Rays will play Yoshimoto Tsutsugo in left field in favor of Renfore, and that they will have Lowe serve as the DH in favor of Martinez. Both Martinez and Renfroe are right-handed hitters who are far more productive against left-handed pitchers, which could mean that they will ride the pine when the Rays are up against a right-handed pitcher.
Lowe is a gifted left-handed batter with a ton of power, so if he is able to play against right-handed pitchers on a regular basis he could be poised for a major breakout season, even if it does end up being a shortened one.